The New Pseudo-Shrinks

With psychiatrists becoming an expendable luxury, trainers, masseuses, and even dentists are doling out mental-health advice. Beth Landman on the perils of mixing dental work and daddy issues.

Jose Luis Banus-March / Getty Images

With psychiatrists becoming an expendable luxury during tough times, trainers, masseuses, and even dentists are doling out mental-health advice to needy clients. Beth Landman on the perils of mixing dental work and daddy issues.

Equinox trainer Kacy Duke has been whipping CEOs and celebrities like Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, and Gwen Stefani into shape for years, but on a recent morning, as she was urging one of her high-power executives to do one last situp, he exploded and started screaming at her. “Many of my clients are having relationship problems as a result of their financial situations, and they are under a lot of strain,’’ says a calm and composed Duke. “But I’ve never had anyone use that tone with me, and it was clear he was working through issues during his training session. When people are with me, they are stripped down, wearing very little, which lessens their defenses. I’ve always had close relationships with my clients, but lately, I feel as if something else besides training is going on."

“What they tell me in the dentist’s office stays in the dentist’s office.’’

It is. Trainers, hairdressers, massage therapists, doctors, and even waxers are reporting that now, due to the recession, when clients or patients are closed in a room and receiving their undivided attention, they are using their appointments as de-facto therapy sessions. Many people have been forced to give up their shrinks as a sacrifice to the down economy, and they are seeking other sympathetic, nurturing ears as a result.

“Clients have become much needier; they want more attention," reports Cindy Barshap, owner of the Completely Bare spas in New York City, which specialize in hair-removal. “They are sitting in this intimate situation with their waxers, and then they start talking to them. We used to leave half an hour for each appointment; now we have to leave 45 minutes."

The new pseudo-shrinks are divided in feeling about their evolved role. Some see it as an additional bond, which makes them more indispensable; others see it as a bit of a burden.

“I call myself a hairapist these days,’’ quips Paul Labreque, who has salons on the East and West Side of Manhattan and has just added a third within the prestigious Core Club.

Samuel Shriqui, another Upper East Side hairdresser, feels that some clients take the sounding-board scenario too far. “I have a few who come in, sit in my chair and begin telling me all their problems now, but if I run into them out of the salon, they act as if they hardly know me,’’ he sighs.

Katie, an ophthalmologist who prefers that we not use her last name, dreads asking patients about any problem involving tearing. “I’ve never dealt with anything like this before,’’ she says. “I mention the word tearing, and all of a sudden they want to tell me why they are tearing, and I’m hearing the whole story. I have to keep boxes of tissues around.’’

Tough as it may be to conjure, even dentists report that their patients are confiding when their mouths are unencumbered. “We lower the lights, the chair reclines and they just start to talk,’’ says Steven Butensky, an Upper East Side prosthodontist. “What they tell me in the dentist’s office stays in the dentist’s office.’’

Even the massage table, traditionally a silent place where clients drift into an alpha state with little more distraction than New Age music, has become a venue for cleansing chatter. Grace McNaw, who owns the popular Graceful Services and Graceful Spa chi gong outposts, says that many of her therapists, who speak English as a second language, merely smile and nod as clients start to yammer away about financial woes. “The customers used to sleep, they were tranquil,’’ she says, shaking her head. “Now some of them talk through the whole session.’’

Dorit Baxter, whose Midtown Manhattan spa gives facials to the likes of Charlie Rose, says being a good listener is part of providing a comforting environment for the stressed-out client. “This is a feel-good business,’’ she insists. “There is a lot of fear now and we try to make people feel safe. They tell us everything. They even talk about the guilt they feel spending money on their facials or massages.’’

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“I like to make people feel better when they come in here,’’ agrees a beaming Nathalie di Noia, who perks up the faces of Manhattan’s social set at the Yasmine D’Jerradine spa, with a combination of electrical stimulation and sprays of oxygen. “I am happy to listen and to give them my opinions.’’

Facialist Aida Bacaj, who tends to the pores of Kyra Sedgwick and Carla Gugino, has mixed emotions. “I’ve become like a shrink, which makes me feel closer to my clients and more trusted by them. Some of them even call me at home. It’s a very difficult time emotionally, and I am there to ease their pain.”

Eyelash guru Karina Friedman takes a different approach. “I am Russian, so I give them tough love,’’ she says. “I tell them, ‘Create your own destiny!’ If their marriages have fallen apart, I say, ‘Go online—meet someone new!’ Some of them are so depressed they take medication and fall asleep on the table. I have one of them who cries all the time while she is telling me her problems, and the appointments take so long because the lashes won’t stay on."

Shrinks, of course, are wringing their hands at the prospect of all this free advice. “This is the problem!” insists Steve Josephson, a longtime Manhattan psychiatrist. “Getting advice on complex emotional problems from people who are trained to use scissors is scary."

And, Josephson warns, depression can be contagious, and sharing problems on a continual basis might not win you any popularity contests.

“All this unhappiness takes a toll on me at the end of the day,’’ admits Bacaj.

Josephson wholeheartedly agrees, and warns that those seeking free advice may eventually get a cold shoulder rather than a warm embrace. “The prospect of doing double duty by giving advice on everything from finance to relationships can be so draining to a non-health-care professional, that many of these clients may find appointment calendars are full the next time they try to book services.’’

Beth Landman started her career in journalism at the New York Post as a restaurant columnist, and then headed to New York magazine, where she penned "Intelligencer'' along with features, and became the beauty editor. She currently freelances and has contributed to New York magazine, the New York Times, and the New York Post among other outlets. Each summer, she writes the "Dish'' column in Hamptons magazine.